Mexican priests, missionaries not spared from drug violence

Mexico | Cartels target clergy because they are an obstacle to consolidating power over a community
by Julia A. Seymour
Posted 10/10/16, 11:04 am

In drug cartel-controlled regions of predominantly Catholic Mexico, even clergy are not immune to the dangers of gang violence.

Several recent kidnappings of priests and Catholic missionaries have provoked questions about whether gangs are specifically targeting the Church. Organized crime and drug-related violence is common in both Michoacan and Veracruz states, where the men were murdered.

In the latest incident, four members of a missionary group called “Arcoiris,” or Rainbow, disappeared Oct. 1. Willibaldo Hernandez, Adan Valencia, Jesus Lopez Urbina, and Jesus Ayala’s tortured bodies were found along the side of a road several days later.

Drug cartels also are suspected in the Sept. 19 kidnapping of Jose Lopez Guillen, a popular priest from the rural town of Janamuato in Michoacan state. He was abducted the same day the bodies of two murdered priests, Alejo Jiménez and José Juárez, were discovered along a road in Veracruz state, according to Religion News Service (RNS).

“He was an engaging personality,” parishioner Maria Solorio told RNS. “He was an excellent priest and very devoted to the community. … What happened to him was a great injustice.”

Mexico’s Catholic Multimedia Center found disproportionate levels of violence against clergy in organized crime-ridden regions, with 31 priests killed since 2006. Still, analysts and Catholic officials say the motivation isn’t religious persecution.

“It would be dishonest to say this is a targeted persecution of priests or the Church,” said Hugo Valdemar Romero, a spokesman for the Mexico City archdiocese. “But the fact that you are a priest does not liberate you from the risk of robbery, murder, or torture.”

Pablo Mijangos y González, a historian at the Centre for Research and Teaching of Economics, told The Guardian it’s a way cartel members, known as narcos, “assert their authority in a brutal way.” 

“Not even the traditional, spiritual authority of the priest is respected: narcos alone rule,” he said, adding the priests aren’t being targeted over their beliefs. “It’s because priests are an obstacle in the way of conquering local power.”

The official response to the killings put the Church at odds with the government after a state prosecutor’s office claimed the two priests killed in Veracruz had been drinking with their attackers. False reports also claimed Guillen was seen at a hotel with a young boy before his murder.

Diocese officials condemned the “smear” campaigns as “moral assassination” of the victims.

“In these cases, it has become clear that state governments that cannot handle the drug cartels are criminalizing the victims, depicting some as drunks and another as a pedophile, making it look like the crimes were not related to drug cartels but because of some immoral conduct,” Romero told The Catholic Herald.

Most crimes, including the murders of priests and missionaries, are never solved. Reuters reported that in 2015, the rate of all unsolved or uninvestigated murders in Mexico rose to a staggering 93.7 percent, based on data from the National Institute of Statistics and Geography. In August 2016 alone, the number of homicides rose to 1,913 across the country.

Julia A. Seymour

Julia has worked as a writer in the Washington, D.C., area since 2005 and was a fall 2012 participant in a World Journalism Institute mid-career class conducted by WORLD editor in chief Marvin Olasky in Asheville, N.C. Follow Julia on Twitter @SteakandaBible.

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  • William Peck 1958's picture
    William Peck 1958
    Posted: Mon, 10/10/2016 04:03 pm

    How do people even survive ? Where does the money for the cartels come from ?